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Following up on my last post, in which I asked why there were still no national standards for forensic science five years after the National Academy of Sciences’2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, and with scandal after scandal in U.S. crime labs all over the country, there may be light on the horizon.  On January 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the formation of the National Commission on Forensic Science.

According to the announcement issued by DOJ and NIST:

Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission also will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal training and certification.

John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the Commission “will help ensure that the forensic sciences are supported by the most rigorous standards available—a foundational requirement in a nation built on the credo of ‘justice for all.’ ”

The formation of the Commission could be the a significant milestone in the march toward the use of real science and defensible national standards in forensic labs.  But it may be limited in what it can achieve just by its creation and structure: it is not a body created by Congress with power to come up with and implement standards or to regulate anything.  Rather it is a federal advisory committee, formed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972.  (A quick primer on the Act is here.)   It investigates and debate designated topics, and then reports its recommendations to the relevant federal department(s) that formed it (in this case, the DOJ and NIST).  Those agencies could choose to embrace and follow, or could choose to reject, some, all, or none of the Commission’s suggestions.

Still, this is a hopeful sign that we might be heading in the right direction.  At the very least, we will see a national conversation between the very large number of Committee members; they come from a variety of backgrounds in government, science, the legal system, and elsewhere.  See the list of more than thirty Commission members at the bottom of this announcement.

I hope readers will weigh in on the following question: realistically, what will come from the Committee?  Will the government adopt these recommendations?  Will the recommendations include national standards to regulate forensic testing, assure quality control, and the like? In the end, will the work that you foresee coming from the Commission improve the U.S.’s largely unregulated system?

New York City will have a new mayor in 2014.  In my article “Ten Steps Bill de Blasio and Bill Bratton Should Take to Fix Stop-and-Frisk,” published in The Nation, I offer a way forward for Mr. de Blasio to start repairing the damage done by the Bloomberg-era policing of the last 12 years.

New York, and indeed the entire country, is waiting to see what the newly sworn-in Bill de Blasio will do the first week of January to fulfill his promise to reform stop-and-frisk.  His first step should be to drop the appeal of Floyd v. City of New York, a move he promised to make many times on the campaign trail….Once the stop-and-frisk appeal is dropped, here are the top ten steps de Blasio and Bratton should take as part of the Floyd remedies process to move forward with stop-and-frisk reform and end racial profiling.

Among the steps I recommend: allowing community stakeholders to be part of the reform process; setting up an independent monitor, and creation of an early warning system.  Many of what you’ll read echo what is in the court’s opinion setting out the remedies for the violations the evidence proved.

To get at least some sense of what Bratton’s approach may be, take a look at this article from the Wall Street Journal on December 20. Perhaps “collaborative policing” — Bratton’s most-frequently-used phrase so far — will include allowing stakeholder participation in the fashioning of reforms; it is too early to tell at this point.

In a newly-published study, researchers find that forensic experts rendering opinions may unconsciously bias their results toward the parties that employ them.  The results have potentially broad application across a wide variety of traditional forensic disciplines.

The journal Psychological Science has posted the study, called “Are Forensic Experts Biased by the Side That Retained Them?”  (I thank The Crime Report, from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for bringing it to my attention.)  The authors, Daniel C. Murrie, Marcus T. Boccaccini, Lucy A. Guarnera, and Katrina A. Rufino, tested the idea that forensic experts called upon to evaluate evidence in an adversarial legal proceeding might respond differently, depending solely upon which party asked them to perform the evaluation.  Here’s the abstract to the study:

How objective are forensic experts when they are retained by one of the opposing sides in an adversarial legal proceeding? Despite long-standing concerns from within the legal system, little is known about whether experts can provide opinions unbiased by the side that retained them. In this experiment, we paid 108 forensic psychologists and psychiatrists to review the same offender case files, but deceived some to believe that they were consulting for the defense and some to believe that they were consulting for the prosecution. Participants scored each offender on two commonly used, well-researched risk-assessment instruments. Those who believed they were working for the prosecution tended to assign higher risk scores to offenders, whereas those who believed they were working for the defense tended to assign lower risk scores to the same offenders; the effect sizes (d) ranged up to 0.85. The results provide strong evidence of an allegiance effect among some forensic experts in adversarial legal proceedings.

If these results stand the test of time, the implications are potentially great,  As discussed in the National Academy of Sciences’ landmark 2009 report “Strengthening Forensic Sciences in the United States: A Path Forward,” most forensic disciplines (outside of DNA identification and those that use traditional chemical analysis) rely to a significant degree on human interpretation to generate conclusions.  The results of the Murrie et al. work suggest that all of these disciplines may be influenced by a very important piece of context — who pays for their work — regardless of which side of the case that is.  The study would seem to support one of the central recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences report: “removing all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices” (p. 24).

I’ll be presenting two talks on my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (2012) in Cleveland on Wednesday, July 17.  The first event, at noon will be at noon, part of the ACLU’s Brown Bag series; details here.  The second will take place at 7:00 pm; click here for details and RSVP information.  Both events are free and open to the public.  Location for both the Wohl Civil Liberties Center, 4506 Chester Ave., Cleveland, OH  44103.  The talks are sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; non-members are welcome and encouraged to attend.

The 7:00 pm event (but not the noon event) has been approved for 1.0 units of Ohio CLE credit.

We’ll have a full discussion of the big issue:  with science such an important part of life, why does law enforcement ignore so much of it that could improve the criminal investigation process?  We’ll also get into concrete suggestions for improvement.

Books will be available for purchase and signing.

When a former high-ranking Justice Department official speaks of a “revolution” in criminal justice, with the whole field turning toward science, could it mean less failed evidence in the future?  What does it mean for those concerned with faulty forensic science?

Laurie Robinson served as Assistant Attorney General in both the Clinton and Obama Justice Departments, where she oversaw the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), the research, statistics and criminal justice assistance arm Justice.  That made her remarks to the Delaware Center for Justice the other day worth noticing.  According to the Wilmington News Journal, “[w]e’re seeing something akin to a revolution in criminal justice in this country,” said Robinson, now on the faculty of George Mason University. “We’re at an important crossroads, one where ideology has taken a back seat, and science and pragmatism have come to the fore.”

Robinson’s web page at George Mason says her tenure at OJP  “was marked by a focus on science and evidence-based programming.”  She was in Delaware to discuss the state’s re-entry programs  and other initiatives to reduce recidivism, and few would disagree that those important programs need scientific and statistical support.   But I wonder whether Robinson would be as optimistic about science’s role in forensic methods, which have played a role in about half of all wrongful convictions across the U.S.  Surely, forensic science needs “science and evidence-based” support and examination — badly.

 It has now been more than four years since the release of the landmark 2009 National Academy of Sciences report Strengthening Forensic Sciences in the United States: A Path Forward, which found that except for DNA and chemical analysis, most of what we think of as forensic science isn’t science at all.  In that time, little seems to have changed; scandals in crime labs continue to pile up in jurisdictions across the country (see my posts about lab scandals just this past year in Massachusetts  and Minnesota,  for example).  In a particularly compelling piece of writing in the Huffington Post, Radley Balko discusses the long-running crime lab scandal in Mississippi, and puts it in context: Mississippi’s scandal “is just the latest in a long, sad line of such stories” that Balko has already chronicled.

What’s to be done?  As a start, I argued in chapter 7 of  Failed Evidence, all federal money that goes to law enforcement should carry with it a requirement for compliance with best practices in police investigation and forensic science.  Not all law enforcement agencies run their own forensic labs (and as the NAS report said in Chapter 6, “Improving Methods, Practice, and Performance in Forensic Science,” labs should be independent of law enforcement.).  But for those that do, compliance with standards that would avoid systematic error, human biases, fraud, and improper scientific testing and testimony should be mandatory.

That would start a revolution right there.  Because what law enforcement agency could afford to just turn down federal funding, in budgetary times like these?

 

Last week, a judge in Florida ruled that the trial of George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year-old Travon Martin will begin next week, as scheduled.  The case will put Florida’s “stand your ground” (SYG) law front and center.  How does Florida’s SYG law work?  What was it supposed to do, and does it accomplish those goals?

I was interviewed on SYG laws on WESA Public Radio’s Essential Pittsburgh on June 3.  (The interview is here.)  Here’s a brief rundown of what I know.

For centuries, Anglo-American law on homicide and self-defense have had a singular goal: avoid violence and death.   If a person is faced with an illegal forcible attack, he or she can engage in self-defense, using as much force as necessary but no more.  An attack with fists can be met with fists, but not with firearms. (Possible exception: the fists of a trained fighter or martial arts expert.)  If one is faced with deadly force, one can use deadly force in self-defense, but if there is a way that one can retreat from the threat  in absolute safety — that is, if the victim can get away without putting himself at risk — the law required him to retreat and avoid the fight.  This was consistent with the overall idea: avoid injury and death if at all possible.

The one exception to the rule of safe retreat was that one did not have to retreat within one’s own home.  This was called the Castle Doctrine: your home is your castle, your ultimate place of safety, and one should not have to flee to safety when they are already at home.

Florida’s SYG law changed this.  A person under deadly attack did not have to retreat in his home, or in any other place that he had a right to be.  There was no more obligation to retreat outside the home; rather, the person could stand his ground and resort to deadly violence in his own defense, even if there was a safe way out of the situation.  In addition, the Florida SYG law put in place strong presumptions preventing a victim who killed an attacker from being criminally charged, and preventing him from being sued.  Most SYG laws have some or all of these features.

SYG laws were supposed to do three things.  First, advocates said the laws would lower the rate of serious crime, because criminals would be deterred.  Second, SYG laws would be a particular deterrent against homicides.  Third, they would put an end to criminal charges against people engaged in legitimate self-defense and the lawsuits that these people were facing from the criminals who they shot (or their survivors).

How has this worked out?

I am a member of the American Bar Association’s National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws, which is currently holding a series of hearings on SYG laws around the U.S., and collecting the relevant research studies on these laws and how they work in practice.  (The next hearing is in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 6, and is open to the public; complete information is here.)   The studies show something different than advocates for these laws expected.  The leading scholarship on SYG laws, from researchers at Texas A & M University, shows that in states that have passed SYG laws, serious crime is unchanged — not down — and homicide has shown an overall increase of 8 percent.  (Here is another study that also shows how homicide increases.)  And as far as criminal charges and/or lawsuits, those seem not to have been anything more than anecdotes in the first place.

I’ll post more on what we learn as the Task Force does its work.

An interview with Failed Evidence author David A. Harris about the Reid Technique, the most popular method for interrogating suspects in U.S. police departments, is featured on Shadow Boxing,  a blog written for Psychology Today.  Shadow Boxing is written by Dr. Katherine Ramsland, who teaches and writes about forensic psychology.  The post was chosen as an “essential read” for the Education area of Psychology Today.  Here’s an excerpt:

The technique seems to be designed for entrapment and even a bit of brainwashing. Is this perception accurate?

I guess I would put it a little differently, though I do understand why you would see it that way. The Reid technique for interrogation is not a process designed for the discovery of facts and evidence. Rather, it is a multi-phase process, to be used when the interrogator has already concluded that the subject is guilty, and therefore simply needs the confession out of the person to confirm the guilt and prove it.